Education bill sent to committee

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates moved Friday to send a bill it passed the day before creating education savings accounts to the House Finance Committee after concerns about its price tag.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, moved to have the House reconsider its vote Thursday on House Bill 2013, creating the Hope Scholarship. In another motion, the bill was sent to the House Finance Committee for review.

“The intent would be to send the bill back to Finance, have them review all the fiscal data so that we can proceed as if fiscally responsible and then bring that back to the floor,” Summers said. “It comes back on second reading. We could advance it to third, take the vote again and repass the bill.”

HB 2013 would give parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses.

The bill was originally capped at approximately 5,000 students for a potential cost of $23 million per year when implemented. An amendment made to the bill Wednesday expanded the program to all eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026, raising the cost of the Hope Scholarship program to as much as $101 million by fiscal year 2027.

The Hope Scholarship was one of the first bills adopted by a committee on Feb. 11, just one day after the start of the 2021 legislative session. The bill was referenced to the House Education Committee without a review by the House Finance Committee and without a fiscal note at the time House members passed the bill Thursday.

By Friday morning, a fiscal note was available for the bill, raising concerns about unintended fiscal consequences of the bill. The fiscal note, prepared by the West Virginia Legislature’s new Division of Regulatory and Fiscal Affairs, found the bill could open eligibility to private and homeschool students earlier than intended.

“Based on our interpretation of the eligibility criteria, a parent of a student currently in private or homeschooling could enroll their child in a summer public school program, making them eligible to apply for the Hope Scholarship Program,” wrote Peter Shirley, director of the Division of Regulatory and Fiscal Affairs. “Alternatively, they could enroll their child in the public school system to become eligible. As this would introduce new students into the eligible population, it has the potential to substantially increase costs.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics there have been an average of 14,285 private school students in West Virginia from 2003 to 2017, with approximately 10,000 homeschooled students. The way the bill is written, the price tag will increase to as much as $112.3 million per fiscal year if every eligible student participates.

“I have reviewed the fiscal note as prepared by our new Fiscal and Regulatory Affairs office,” said House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley. “For those reasons, I believe the right thing to do is to address those concerns.”

House Democratic lawmakers have been vocal in their concerns about the bill, especially when it comes to the potential cost to the state, the decrease in funding to county public schools, and what they perceive to be a rushed legislative process.

“I’ve got real trouble with this bill obviously, and it’s because we don’t have good financial information,” said Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, during debate on HB 2013 Thursday. “When we have a bill like this that is a game changer, a break-the-bank bill, we need to know what the numbers are.”


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